Under the Mega-Microscope



Jordan's largest infrastructure project to date weathers intense public scrutiny.



Countries suffering from water shortages face a number of effective yet pricey options to quench their national thirst: In Libya, a massive project known as the Great Man-Made River delivers fossil water from the Sahara Desert and distributes it along entirely new waterways. Saudi Arabia is now the world's largest producer of desalinated sea-water, and in January, its government announced the commission of yet another plant.

In August, neighboring Jordan is expected to complete a solution to its own hydro shortage: The US$1.2 billion Disi Water Conveyance Project, the country's largest infrastructure project ever, will pump 107 million cubic meters (28 billion gallons) of water per year from 64 wells in the Disi aquifer in southern Jordan to two reservoirs in Amman, the country's capital.

The feat captured the public's attention—and with reason. Eighty percent of the country is arid desert, according to the United Nations, and the World Bank lists Jordan's water resources as fourth-poorest in the world. Most cities and villages receive water only weekly, while some provinces are restricted to once every two or three weeks.

The Disi Water Conveyance Project is an ambitious joint venture between Ankara, Turkey-based GAMA Holding and General Electric (GE), headquartered in Fairfield, Connecticut, USA. The underground pipeline will cut through 350 kilometers (217 miles) of land—but only if the project team can first navigate a political and environmental landscape littered with tensions.

“Problems you cannot foresee are much more volatile and dangerous than the known or expected ones,” says Ahmet Ligvani, a project manager at GAMA Power Systems, the project's engineering, procurement and construction contractor.


The Disi Water Conveyance Project came under scrutiny when a 2009 study published in Environmental Science & Technology found radioactivity in some of the Disi aquifer wells.

Vocal critics put the project's leaders in an uncomfortable position. Project managers typically focus their efforts on the technical challenges of a project, says Mr. Ligvani, and assume major public concerns will get resolved. “But in real life, if these issues are not managed properly, they can adversely impact the project on a scale never envisioned.”

For Mr. Ligvani, that meant creating media guidelines with stakeholders and project sponsors: Would the stakeholders provide regular newsletters to keep the media updated on developments? Were public meetings going to be scheduled to keep the public informed of the project's progress?

“Project managers have to have response plans and clear divisions of responsibility, especially in large-scale projects where public involvement is inevitable,” he says. Early on, the team decided that press inquiries about the wells’ radioactivity would be answered with an explanation about the government's plans to dilute the water and make it potable.

The Ministry of Water and Irrigation maintains that the water is radioactive from radon—a gas that evaporates harmlessly when it comes into contact with air—and therefore potable. Still, intense testing is in the works to establish how much water is needed to dilute the pumped-in reserves to safe drinking levels.

“Any release of data has to be approved by both project organizations,” explains Bassam Saleh, project leader at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Amman, “but the media has a good role in following up with this project, and we aim to be transparent and cooperative in how we share information.”


“Project managers have to have response plans and clear divisions of responsibility, especially in large-scale projects where public involvement is inevitable.”

—Ahmet Ligvani, GAMA Power Systems, Ankara, Turkey




In January 2011, the project faced a hurdle no one foresaw: At a pipeline construction site in Mudawarra, Jordan, members of local Bedouin tribes claimed jurisdiction over a stretch of land the pipeline crossed. Tensions were high, and when GAMA brought more resources and subcontractors to the area to speed production, tribal members allegedly opened fire, killing two of the project's subcontractors and injuring four others.

Compounding matters, the incident occurred on the heels of a change in project leadership. The month before, the Ministry of Water had asked for a meeting with GE and GAMA to discuss the project's progress, which had been slowed because of coordination issues with local authorities. The project management team was replaced, and production increased significantly until mid-2011, when security problems adversely impacted the progress.

“As stakeholders, we had invested over US$700 million in the project, but the project was only 30 percent complete and early in its lifespan,” says Mr. Ligvani. “We seriously considered whether to continue or not.”

“Each area in the world has its own people and behaviors, and from the beginning of this project, it was known [protests] might be an issue. During the tendering process, the contractors had to show their experience of the region and demonstrate how they might deal with these types of issues.”

—Bassam Saleh, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Amman, Jordan

Work at the site ground to a halt for nearly a month. Four members of the management staff resigned, and 40 percent of the workforce at the southern site refused to work, though the team received repeated reassurances from the government of Jordan that the attacks wouldn't be repeated.


But when GAMA accelerated its construction schedule and brought in non-local workers and equipment in June 2011, protests again flared up at the site. In September 2011, with tensions still escalating between protesters and workers, the project managers issued a suspension notice.

“Each area in the world has its own people and behaviors, and from the beginning of this project, it was known this might be an issue,” says Mr. Saleh. “During the tendering process, the contractors had to show their experience of the region and demonstrate how they might deal with these types of issues.”

To resolve the protest issue, intense behind-the-scenes discussions began, Mr. Ligvani says, as project stakeholders, tribal and government leaders, and members of the Turkish embassy met to discuss a peaceful way forward. That December, the government agreed to provide police patrols for the job sites, and work finally resumed.

Mr. Ligvani recommends that on megaprojects with similar territorial discord, “project managers should acknowledge that it is inevitable to engage with local tribe members. It is important that a project manager approach these people with a plan that outlines the company's intentions, including the expected phases of construction.”


To be most valuable, he adds, communicating with external stakeholders should begin during the planning phase, as part of a larger and systematic “public management plan.”

“It needs to outline the contributions that shall be made to all local communities, including the type of service and the timing schedule,” Mr. Ligvani says. “That public management plan needs to be transparently and openly communicated to communities early on in the project.”

Despite a slow start and tumultuous setbacks, the Disi Water Conveyance Project is currently on schedule, though budget overruns have resulted from the unexpected delays. Construction is slated to be complete in August, with the pipeline at full capacity and delivering water later this year. PM


Simply by dint of their size and scope, most megaprojects are a magnet for the type of public scrutiny and media attention that Jordan's Disi project has received, says Ed Merrow, CEO of project benchmarking firm Independent Project Analysis, based in Ashburn, Virginia, USA and author of Industrial Megaprojects: Concepts, Strategies, and Practices for Success.

These mammoth undertakings—defined as projects with a budget over US$1 billion—fail about 65 percent of the time, which is roughly twice as often as smaller projects, according to Mr. Merrow. “If they start unraveling, they completely unravel and are hard to rescue.” He believes that proper front-end loading—gathering strategic information and making risk assessments early in the project's life cycle—is the most reliable predictor of a megaproject's success.

“Project management is basically the science of planning combined with the art of reacting to surprises or turbulence,” he says, “and the goal of megaproject planning has to be to remove as much of the turbulence as you can, by dealing with it well before execution starts.” Mr. Merrow suggests that megaprojects begin with an intense shaping process, performed by the project sponsor, to assess what the sources of turbulence are going to be.

img “If [megaprojects] start unraveling, they completely unravel and are hard to rescue.”

—Ed Merrow, Project Analysis, Ashburn, Virginia, USA

Ahmet Ligvani, GAMA Power Systems, Ankara, Turkey, says a turbulence assessment for large-scale, complex projects should include:

  • A detailed execution plan, covering engineering and procurement strategy
  • A subcontracting matrix, clearly outlining the implementation strategy for each subcontracted scope and schedule, well before construction
  • A schedule study for determining potential bottlenecks and constraints
  • An analysis of the critical path, focusing on vital tasks

Following these steps, “a risk assessment and mitigation plan has to be prepared to identify the measures that will be taken during the execution of the project,” Mr. Ligvani says. To be successful, the project manager and sponsor must anticipate as much of the project's complexity as possible, and must recognize that managing megaprojects goes far beyond just administering expansive construction. They also have to outline plans for dealing with a complicated, sometimes volatile, public dynamic.

“As project manager, your role is always to balance and optimize the demands of all stakeholders,” says Mr. Ligvani. “You want to understand other parties’ demands and reasoning before providing any reaction.”




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